Screaming at Children -- A Ref's Eye View

By Mike Woitalla

It's amazing that no matter how many games you ref, no matter how much you prepare for the all possible scenarios, you still get blindsided. I had a coach come to me angrily at halftime of a U-10 girls rec game to accuse the opponent of having a boy playing goalkeeper.

More on that later. Most of what I’ve encountered in my first games of reffing in the spring season has been the predictable: Lots of adults screaming at children.

I’ve written before about how, as a referee, one so clearly sees the children’s reaction to being yelled at. The worst is the sad, distressed look on their faces.

It seems that the lower the ages, the more screaming. And the result is usually that their performance suffers as their confidence drains. I’ve been keeping track, and the teams whose players get the most instructions and admonishments yelled at them from the sidelines end up playing worse.

One game I reffed recently had so many wonderful aspects to it. On a sunny Saturday morning, a U-12 boys game paired a Manchester United and a Barcelona -- and it was as delightful as watching those real teams.

A left-footed kid named Leo actually displayed some Messi-type skills. A center forward looked like an 11-year-old Radamel Falcao. The defenders didn’t boot the ball, but passed to their nearest teammates.

There was some wonderful combination play, but on an adult-size field, it often broke down before a good scoring chance.

This led to no end of frustration for the coaches and parents. Early on, after a goalkeeper save, the coach screamed, “Kick it harder!” The players picked up on that and started screaming, “Kick it harder,” whenever a shot on goal was saved (by a very good little goalkeeper). “I did kick it hard!” one kid finally shouted.

A favorite phrase from one of the coaches was, “What was that!?” And early in the second half, when a player botched a shot on goal, his teammate yelled “What the f***?”

On the same weekend, U-10 girls were obviously confused with instructions screamed at them by the coaches on one sideline and the parents on the other. When I told a parent who moved to the goal to yell fatuous advice to return to the sideline, a girl said, “Good job, ref.” I think it was her father.

While the girls in the U-10 game were rendered nervous and insecure by the screaming, the U-12 boys reacted with anger at each other.

They had arrived at the field with smiles and laughter. As the game went on they started acting like the adults -- grumpy, frustrated and critical.

There are many reasons why adults shouldn’t scream at kids playing soccer. But robbing children of the joy that comes from playing soccer on a sunny spring Saturday morning is the worst.

(As for the coach who questioned the gender of a 9-year-old. I told him he was wrong -- which I knew because I had checked all the players' cards -- and he said "it happens all the time," teams sneaking boys into girls games. That can't be true, can it?)

In the News

* In its first game since qualifying for the U-20 World Cup, Coach Tab Ramos' U.S. U-20s fell to England, 2-1, before more than 11,000 fans.

* U.S. U-17 striker Haji Wright has signed with NASL's New York Cosmos.

* U.S. Development Academy expansion: Baltimore Armour, Sacramento Republic and Florida's Boca United have been accepted to field U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams for the 2015-16 season in all the divisions: U-13/14s, U-15/16s and U-17/18s. New York City FC will be joining the U-13/14 age group.

18 comments about "Screaming at Children -- A Ref's Eye View ".
  1. Wayne Root, March 30, 2015 at 3:31 p.m.

    Did you ever consider that you have several forms of bullying there?

  2. Gonzalo Munevar, March 30, 2015 at 3:34 p.m.

    From what the article says, things haven't changed much from 30 years ago when I coached young boys. Sad. I never shouted at a child in my team. Not in training, and certainly not in a game. I brought the parents together and asked them to make my job easier by not ever shouting at the players either, except for encouragement. Perhaps that was a factor in the team's performance. In our first season, at 6 years of age, they scored 60 goals and had 3 goals against. When they were 9, instead of playing in the U-10, the league kicked them up to the U-12. They still won the championship. I made sure that my players had fun being clever. Soccer should be fun. This ref hits the nail on the head in this article.

  3. Paul Stewart, March 30, 2015 at 3:47 p.m.

    I encourage all coaches, parents, referees and players to take advantage of the great information of the Positive Coaching Alliance,, which provides tips and training for each different group on how to deal exactly with these types of problem. Developed at Stanford, PCA is now a national organization impacting almost half of youth athletes in the country.

  4. Todd Morrish, March 30, 2015 at 4:36 p.m.

    Thanks, Mike. Good points. You make me re-think my own coaching behavior on game day. When I look back on recent games I've coached (U15G comp), I recognize that on some days I've sat calmly in my coach's chair, smiling, laughing, chatting with the subs, enjoying the game my girls were playing; whereas others, I was more tense & critical of the girls, seeing the bad more than the good. My point: coaches should make a concerted effort, starting the night before the game, to get into the right frame of mind. Prepare yourself for fun, focusing on the positive. Get a good night's rest. Then, enjoy your Saturday.

  5. R2 Dad, March 30, 2015 at 4:42 p.m.

    At the league level, we allow coaches to scream at their players (supposedly only for encouragement but that only happens at U8). The parents and players follow the form of the coaches. At some point we should probably just ban coaches from screaming, probably until U14. That will anger coaches who like to micromanage their teams, but maybe they should only coach older teams because of all the damage they do. That would create a devious trap, where crappy/screaming coaches can't just start a new U8 team (and age up with them); they would have to be invited to a responsible club that will manage/train them or they will have to be good enough to coach older kids as an independent. Right now it's too easy for any dolt to start "coaching" a U8 team and carry their bad habits through as the team ages up.

  6. barbara jesberger-mcintosh, March 30, 2015 at 5:14 p.m.

    So sad that these parents don't wake up!!! They are an ultimate distraction to everyone - especially these poor kids!!!! As a parent of two soccer children ( GU - 13 , BU -11 ) I hate going to their games because of what you have described and what I have continually observed . Sometimes I feel like telling these idiots to shut the F--K up. But in doing that I would be no better than them ! I don't ever think that this will change. These parents are living their lives through their kids. It's pathetic and repulsive!!! Good luck in changing this- mike!!!!!!

  7. Kent James, March 30, 2015 at 7:21 p.m.

    Of course, you are right. I think the main problem is when young players are put in competitive situations, it's the parents who lose perspective. Usually, by the time the kids are older (U14 & up), parents have calmed down, tired out, or just stopped attending (though that's not always true; much to the amusement of my over 30 team, which was waiting to play on a field on which there was a competitive U18 boys game that was being played at a pretty high level, after a pretty serious (but fair) challenge on the side line in front of us (and the parents), the parents started going off and the players (from both teams) turned to them and said "will you just shut up!" We wanted to applaud, but we restrained ourselves...). The solution is to make winning the meaningless exercise it is at the young ages. We ran a skills program (U6-U10) in which we moved the kids between teams (using pinnies) to keep the games competitive, and we never had an issue with parents. It was a wonderful atmosphere, because most parents just cheered when someone (on either team) made a nice play (though many still thought 'booting' it was a nice play...sigh). Kids played hard, but when it was over, no one remembered who won.

  8. Ric Fonseca, March 30, 2015 at 9:35 p.m.

    Well, we can all say that "been there and done that" and it is obvious that we're all on the same page. And of course, muchas gracias to Mike for his insightful article, that at this stage in life, it would be more beneficial for parents to also read this (and other messages) as a condition to signing up their kids, 'cause try as we may and do, we're just preaching to the choir here, and so let's pray to the congregation!!!

  9. Ric Fonseca, March 30, 2015 at 9:36 p.m.

    oooops, that should've been "preach to the ...."

  10. Brian Something, March 30, 2015 at 10:19 p.m.

    Your number one responsibility as the coach or parent of a young player is to destroy their love of the game. Teaching is secondary because it's rendered meaningless if the kid ends up hating the game and quitting.

  11. Donald Tosh , March 31, 2015 at 1:49 p.m.

    This should explain everything

  12. Leia Ambra, March 31, 2015 at 1:51 p.m.

    After reffing hundreds of youth and high school games myself, and seeing my son play for nine years, yes, screaming by parents, especially the negative screaming, is very destructive. When I hear it, I walk over to the coach and remind them of the agreement made at the beginning of the season re positive coaching, and have him or her constrain the parents, if needed. I feel that constructive comments by the coach help the players tremendously though, esp. if they applaud the positive plays as well as give constructive feedback.

  13. Jose Beckenbauer, March 31, 2015 at 4:34 p.m.

    The best antidote for boorish behavior by parents was deftly applied by a teen ref at a U10 rec game: he red-carded a father and refused to re-start play until the offender removed himself from the sideline. The shaming worked and the remainder of the game was boisterously cheered and fun for all. Best of all? The red card recipient confronted the ref after the game and the league banned the parent from all subsequent practices and games. His child thrived in the new environment.

  14. Randy Vogt, March 31, 2015 at 9:48 p.m.

    Soccer Americans certainly understand that the behavior of the adults that Mike writes about is ridiculous. But we are passionate about soccer and watch all kinds of games. It's doubtful that many of these parents have seen any games except those played by their own children. Mike might be preaching to the choir here but not if we all ask our leagues and clubs to post their article on the home pages of their websites along with these comments. The parents would see it before they can access their child's schedule or the league standings and it would change boorish behavior.

  15. John DiFiore, April 1, 2015 at 1:25 a.m.

    Questions to the coaches (and former coaches) here: Do any of you have children coached by someone else? When you see your child (or whoever) not performing up to their normal level of play (in wrong space, not trying hard, not playing with intensity) do you yell to your child, if the coach is doing nothing to motivate them? (and i'm not talking about mistakes (like kick harder, or far post, etc), I'm talking about focus and effort.
    So, when your child is not performing and no one is saying anything to him/her, just be silent?? What about missed learning opportunities?

  16. Kent James, April 3, 2015 at 2:38 p.m.

    John, you've raised a complex question. A lot depends on the age of the child, the level of competition, your relationship with the child. Encouraging a player from the sidelines would generally be acceptable, but motivation by shaming or being negative may backfire, and I would discourage that. But again, depending on the age, too much (even positive) input from the parents on the sidelines can embarrass a child (teenagers are easily embarrassed by zealous parents). Implied in your question is "what if the coach is not giving the players the coaching they need", and that is a very tricky issue. First, I think a parent needs to defer to the coach, even if the parent is knowledgeable (a coach, e.g.) and disagrees the what the coach is doing. Shouting instructional directions from the sidelines is counterproductive (coaches telling the kids one thing from one sideline, the parents telling them the opposite from the other leaves the kids quite confused!). If you think the coach is wrong, it's probably worth talking to the coach to find out what the tactics/goals are, and if you (and more importantly, your child) still think its a problem, find another team next season. If you have a good relationship with your child (and they are mature/knowledgeable enough) you can discuss the issue after the game. "How were you feeling today? It didn't look like you were playing with your normal intensity.." Or "Why did you keep making long passes up the middle?" Understanding what your child is thinking will help you figure out if there's an issue with the coaching. I think it is good for players to experience different coaches (variety is the spice of life), and while every coach has flaws (some more than others!), unless there's a serious issue, parents should support the coach (in the eyes of the player) to keep the message and lines of authority clear.

  17. James Madison, April 3, 2015 at 6:17 p.m.

    1, It doesn't get better as the kids get older. One of my favorite stories involved the captain of a women's community college team who came up to me just after I had awarded her side a DFK and, referring to her incessantly yelling coach, asked, "Could you red card our coach."

    2. Coaches and parents who yell usually are dealing with anxieties over he adequacy of thier coaching or patenting. As a coach, I have found it helpful to distract shouting parents by giving them jobs, such as keeping statistics and taking photos--at least one good shot of each playher---that can be put up on the team website. They find it difficult to both do their job and shout.

  18. cony konstin, December 26, 2019 at 11:35 a.m.

    Another reason we need 600,000 Futsal courts so kids can play king/Queen of the court, 24/7/365, for free and especially with no adult interference.. 

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